Judge Erich Asperschlager is pretty sure he's being followed by Woolly Mammoths.
"Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."
Directed by Benh Zeitlin and co-written by Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a modern fable set on a small, poverty-stricken island off the coast of Louisiana. The island, nicknamed "The Bathtub" because of its precarious position outside the levees that protect the mainland, is home to a tight-knit, independent community that values what little they have. While outsiders might look at their makeshift shacks and rusty boats and see the lowest economic rung, The Bathtub's residents see "the prettiest place on earth."
Facts of the Case
Zeitlin shows us The Bathtub through the eyes of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). Deprived of basic comforts and absent a loving mother, Hushpuppy lives with her distant, hard-drinking father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Their difficult life is made even worse when a hurricane hits The Bathtub, flooding the island. Wink, Hushpuppy, and a group of diehard residents refuse to abandon their home, fighting for what is theirs against rising waters, the nameless government agents telling them to leave, and the impending arrival of the Aurochs—tusked, primitive beasts that were freed from the Antarctic ice by the storm and are headed towards Hushpuppy's home.
Beasts straddles the line between fantasy and reality. While the floating shanties and tusked giant pigs are the stuff of dreams, the storm-ravaged Louisiana setting hits uncomfortably close to home. Although the hurricane isn't called Katrina and The Bathtub is not New Orleans, the flooded homes and packed evacuation centers are straight out of news footage circa 2005. Even so, Zeitlin and Alibar aren't interested in talking about the politics of Katrina. This unnamed hurricane is just the latest in a long line of hardships for The Bathtub, and the latest obstacle for these people to overcome.
At the beating heart of the film is a story about strength and survival, through the turbulent relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink. Most screen fathers are either protective heroes or cruel villains. Wink is a bit of both. His love for Hushpuppy is fierce, a stormy mix of passion, regret, and devotion. Their father-daughter dynamic is complicated in ways movies rarely allow family relationships to be. Wink pushes Hushpuppy harder than we're comfortable watching, but as the story unfolds we see the kindness in his cruelty. Like a wild animal with his cub, he takes care of his daughter by teaching her how to take care of herself. It's tough to argue with the results.
As Hushpuppy, first-rate first-grader Quvenzhané Wallis carries the film, holding her own against Dwight Henry's Wink and the other adult actors. She is capable of unleashing her energy in primal screams, or holding it in with quiet determination. Wallis brings an inner strength to the part of a girl forced to shoulder responsibility beyond her years, and she does it better than people four times her age. It would be a powerful performance for an adult. For a six-year-old newcomer, it's amazing. In a year that also featured noteworthy performances from the pre-teen leads of Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts' Wallis cements 2012's status as a great year for child actors.
It's hard enough for a seasoned professional to make a great film with amateur actors and a limited budget. Beasts of the Southern Wild marks the feature film debut for director Benh Zeitlin. Using the setting, music, and style of his last short film, Glory At Sea, Zeitlin fleshed out the story for Beasts with friend and co-writer Lucy Alibar, adapting the story from her one-act play, Juicy and Delicious. They made several changes from Alibar's original play, including switching Hushpuppy from a boy to a girl. One thing they kept, though, were the Aurochs. These prehistoric beasts are the most memorable visual in the film, even though they have the least impact on the actual story. It's never clear whether they exist or are only in Hushpuppy's mind. They underscore themes of survival and mortality, and help Zeitlin to build his dreamlike world, in a film that defies categorization. Most modern movies are so afraid of confusing viewers that they leave little room for interpretation. Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't afraid to be ambiguous, weaving a story of family and fealty in the style of the folklore that inspired it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild's 1.85:1 1080p transfer from 16mm is gorgeous in a lo-fi way, with a grain that is pronounced without obscuring detail and color. Zeitlin's handheld camera allows him to shoot in confined places, putting the audience inside the shacks, boats, and impromptu festivals of The Bathtub. It's the opposite of slick Hollywood filmmaking in the best possible way. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack won't push the limits of your sound system, but itâ€™s an effective mix, balancing dialogue, booming storms, stampeding Aurochs, and the rousing score, composed by Zeitlin and Dan Romer.
Beasts on Blu-ray comes with bonus features that go deeper into the world of the movie, with additional scenes, behind the scenes material, and the short film that inspired the feature:
• Deleted Scenes (14:00): Presented with director's commentary, these scenes suggest that the original cut of the film was less ambiguous about Hushpuppy's mom and the existence of Aurochs. Interesting as they are, Zeitlin was right to take them out.
• Auditions (15:15): Audition footage with Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, separately and together.
• "The Making of Beasts of the Southern Wild" (22:27): A broad overview of the filmmaking process, from auditions and set design to staging a hurricane and creating the 10-foot-tall Aurochs.
• Glory at Sea (25:44): The short film that inspired the full-length feature. Although it lacks the focused story of Beasts, it's fun to see how much they have in common.
• "Music" (3:06): This featurette looks at Zeitlin and Romer's composition process.
• "The Aurochs" (3:18): Some of this is covered in the longer making-of featurette, but it's still fascinating to see how they transformed a bunch of pigs into convincing monsters.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a bold, boisterous debut for Benh Zeitlin, drawing inspiration from the culture and resilience of post-Katrina Louisiana to create a convincing modern myth. For all the imagination that went into the writing and direction, it's hard to imagine the film working nearly as well without Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Their combined raw talent is a force to be reckoned with—that hurricane never stood a chance.
Beast it! Not guilty!
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